Once, when I was living in married student housing in California, my oldest son was about eighteen months old, I read a short story by Anne Tyler. I'm not even sure where I read it... The New Yorker, maybe....?
My literary aspirations were deep undercover then, but my life, in many ways, was lovely. We lived in a spartan apartment. It was on the ground floor, and tiny, with tan linoleum floors that echoed the sound of every toddler cry.
There was a large sandbox and play structure in the center of the apartment complex, and every apartment was full of little families-- mostly the wives of foreign graduate students. In a way, I was also the wife of a foreign graduate student. My husband was a graduate student, and he was foreign, and so we blended in.
I taught ESL in the nearby adult school. My life was full of people with accents, and children learning to climb and ride tricycles. We often had potlucks in which we sat on folding lawn chairs, balancing paper plates filled with asian noodles, egg curry, and cous while our children played with garage sale plastic toys and our conversations were peppered with sentences that began, "in my country..."
Truth was, I often felt inadequate. I was never sure what to bring to the potluck. I did not have a dish that was quintessentially mine. My housekeeping was never as good as the wives of the foreign graduate students, nor were my opinions quite as well-formed. My friend, Zohra, from Tunisia, gathered olives from the trees that lined the road and in the spring she could make dishes from plants that even in my native California I had always thought were weeds. She kept her house clean, and hung a small cloth over her TV when it wasn't in use.
My house tended to be discombobulated. I was afraid to use disposable diapers for fear the gel in them would poison my baby's bottom. I had trouble with breast-feeding and had expensive Medela paraphenelia that cluttered up the area near my sink.
And then, I found that Anne Tyler story, and I read it. I don't remember much about it, except that it was about a woman who lived among foreign graduate students and felt inadequate.
I wanted to know how she knew me. I wanted to know how Anne Tyler knew what it was like to be me.
Now, fifteen years later, I find Digging to America.
Anne Tyler is writing about many things-- but she is certainly writing about my own experience of seventeen years of living in a cross-cultural marriage.
Sometimes literature is like that.
Sometimes you realize that you are not alone in your most secret thoughts and fears. There are other people in the world who are envious of the foreign graduate student wives with their clean houses who always seem to know what dish to bring to the potluck to represent their culture, and who seem to have enough time to keep that little embroidered cloth, with the point hanging just so, over the the TV when they are not watching it. Whose lives are not cluttered by piles of useless junk that collect in the corners of their kitchen counters, who could pack off of their belongings into two or three cardboard boxes.
Clutter, junk, stuff, abundance, joy, love...
Anne Tyler put in all in there.